Elaine Weiss recently was named executive director and CEO of the American Academy of Dermatology, a post she assumes on Feb. 7, 2013. Previously she was president and CEO of the Illinois CPA Society. She received the 2012 “Most Powerful Women in Accounting” award from CPA Practice Advisor and the American Society of Women Accountants. Prior to joining the Society in 2002, Weiss served as associate director of the American Bar Association. Earlier she served as director of public affairs for the Planned Parenthood Association of Chicago. She is a past president of the Illinois Women’s Agenda, a statewide coalition of women’s organizations, and has worked as a staff attorney for the Special Commission on Administration of Justice in Cook County. In 1993, she was appointed by President Bill Clinton to serve as regional director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and a Juris Doctorate from the National Law Center at George Washington University.
From your résumé it’s clear that you know how to get things done; how to move organizations and people forward. What are the skills you bring to that task and how do you think you have developed them?
I think it’s a combination of factors. I’d like to think I have good instincts for understanding organizations and the opportunities that are out there. I think I’ve been fortunate to work with boards at organizations who are willing to jump off a cliff with me to be a little more strategic and take more risk and to prioritize rather than try to be all things to all people. That’s how you get things done.
I think I’m pretty good at spotting the right opportunities at the right time and I’ve been fortunate enough to have a great board that will say, “Let’s work together to get it done.” Sometimes the organization itself isn’t willing to embrace change. So it takes the executive director and board working together.
You graduated from college with a degree in journalism. How did you see your career path unfolding ahead of you then?
I had a passion for public interest and advocacy. Originally I wanted to get into investigative journalism because I grew up in the Woodward-Bernstein era. I think that was a good background because in journalism you have to write very fast, under pressure, and cut through a lot of facts to get to the bottom line and communicate it. I think those skills serve you well as an association executive. On any day you’re inundated with information, and it served me well to cut through the clutter and think clearly under pressure, handle the stress and be able to communicate to the board and the staff the “lead story” of the day—what we need to do today and what we don’t need to do.
My passion for public interest and the advocacy arena are a good mixture for the association world. It’s a combination of providing education and professional development but also being an advocate for the group you represent. I only work for professionals I respect. I could not represent certain groups where their cause or their issues don’t sing to my heart. So I’ve worked on healthcare, for the legal profession advancing justice; I’ve worked passionately for women’s issues in the workplace.
In every profession there are always really good people doing the best they can every day to serve clients, follow the rules and get the job done at the highest level, and I’ve always respected the groups I work for.
I know women’s issues have been an important focus of yours. In your career, have there been instances where you felt barriers were put up because you’re a woman?
Absolutely. I still do. I still see them to this day. There are fewer but they’re there and the glass ceiling is still alive and well. There are so many more woman achieving that it’s not impenetrable, but it exists. I see it with friends and through personal experiences to this day.
Do you feel that because of that level of achievement young women may underestimate how entrenched the barriers remain in the business world?
I do. When you talk to a young woman about the glass ceiling she’ll look at you like you’re a suffragette. They don’t feel it, see it or believe it. Maternity leave is a given. Flexible hours are a way of life. And I think that’s great. It’s great that young women don’t start out their careers understanding that they may see some of this. Is it naïve? Sure. I also think it’s testimony to the great women who came before them that it sounds prehistoric not to have a work/life balance or a family and a career.
I still see articles by women bemoaning that we “can’t have it all.” And yeah, you can’t have it all at the same moment. Over the course of a career and over a life you get to make a whole lot more choices than ever used to exist for women, so you can have a lot. You just have to be flexible in how you achieve that balance at different points in your life.
How difficult have those choices been for you? Do you feel there were missteps?
The dream job of a lifetime came to me in 1993 when I was offered a job in the White House in the early days of the Clinton Administration. It was a job I wanted to take more than anything else in my life and I passed it up because my son was 2 years old. There was no way I could figure out how to juggle a life and a family between D.C. and Chicago. A White House job is a 7-day-a-week job.
I don’t regret making that choice: It was absolutely the right choice for my child and therefor for me at that time. But I always regret that I didn’t have that opportunity to work in the White House. I wish it had hit at a different moment in my life. But once you have that happen to you at a very young stage [in your career] you’re pretty clear on what your inner priorities are. It has served me well to always have an inner compass to cut through everyone’s sage advice offered through the lens of the personal lives.
Do you think that striking that work life/home life balance is still the greatest challenge for most women?
Yes. It’s still disproportionately harder for women because they bear greater responsibility. But it has been interesting to see how much men have changed as well. I hear more often that men are doing stay-at-home parenting while women go out for the career. I think that’s kind of cool. It’s not common, but it’s more common. And it’s good that men don’t have to be as limited in their thinking about what they want to be when they grow up. People are making it work in a variety of ways.
That being said, for the vast majority of women, particularly those who are not as high up and in the executive suite, there are fewer choices and tougher demands and it still falls on women far more than on men. For those of us who have been fortunate enough to make it to a CEO level, there’s a heck of a lot of flexibility that comes with all the stress. There are more resources available to get the job done. But when we talk about advancement of women, I still think we underestimate how truly challenging it is at the entry level and the first years of a career before you have success. It’s so much harder for young women than for young men.
I’m sure you’re often asked for advice about navigating those pitfalls. What do you tell young women beginning their careers?
They need to be clear about what it is they like to do at work. You’re going to be doing it for a long time. So try to find work you find gratifying, so that when the work/life challenges hit, both worlds are satisfying. Maybe not both every day of the week. But listen to your heart when you’re planning a career.
Second, be flexible. There are times when the trade-offs are pretty hard. In the early days, sometimes you have to put in a heck of a lot of hours to prove yourself. And that’s part of the deal. You can’t have it all in the first 37 seconds you’re in the workplace!
I think that that tends to be something young people today expect more than my generation did.
They’re less patient?
A little bit. They’re not less committed to work, though. That they do it flexibly and differently doesn’t mean they’re not committed professionals. I laugh when older people complain that young people don’t work as hard. That’s not true; they just work differently.
I do think you need to see this as a marathon. So my advice to young women is to understand that you live one day at a time but you have years to get it calibrated, so go the distance.
And find a good mentor if you can. Find someone who can talk you through the days when it does all fall apart. Everybody has those days.
Can a mentor be male as well as female?
Yes, it could be. But chances are it’s the woman who’s had the kid who got sick at 2 in the afternoon when you have a big meeting, and the nurse at school calls and you don’t want to answer the cellphone because you recognize that number. A mentor is usually going to be a woman who’s been in that situation already.
Again, if you’re fortunate to have a good partner in life, the juggling is shared, sometimes hour by hour. I’ve done both. I’ve been married with a partner who’s been there and I’ve been divorced and a single mother without a lot of help. You need a support system for yourself in both instances.
How can a young person find the right mentor?
It’s not something you can formally do. I know a lot of workplaces create mentor programs, and they’re fine. But I really think it comes from keeping your eyes and ears open around the workplace, or by joining an association and finding that woman who is in your profession but—even better—isn’t in your workplace. Be alert and try to find the time to share a cup of coffee with that person.
My belief, in this age where virtually everything is virtual, is that it’s still all about human relationships, and meeting face to face and finding those connections. It may start on LinkedIn but it doesn’t end there. It ends with a friendship that transcends technology.
Were you lucky enough to have had mentors through your career?
I had a very strong mentor in my early days at the American Bar Association who was terrific. At a formative part of my career, she was very helpful.
Is a good mentor someone who can be honest with you?
Yes. It’s someone who lets you vent but doesn’t let you whine. You need to vent sometimes. And you also need someone who’ll say, “OK, stop whining. Let’s get the show on the road. Let’s look through the options.” It also should be someone who makes sure you stay true to yourself in the process.
A good friend gives you some different ways of thinking about the workplace and makes sure you’re doing right by yourself, and not losing your own compass in the process of career building.
And for some people, working full time and traveling works perfectly, while others need to work part-time. Everyone approaches it differently, so making sure you have a mentor who helps you find what’s right for you is key.
Some problems women face are systemic. What most needs to change in the workplace that will benefit women?
I think it’s changing. I think technology and flexibility changing how we define a workweek has been hugely helpful. When I started out it was you’re at your desk from 9 to 5. The boss has to see you at your desk and you leave after the boss leaves. Face time was the rule. That doesn’t work well with women because there were a lot of men who knew how to play that game but in between 9 and 5 got nothing done. But they got there early and stayed late and were perceived to be the “go to guys.”
Women just get a lot done a lot differently. I think the flexible approach where you go home, you make dinner, you go to the band concert and then you get back online at 10 p.m. and get more done has been great.
What hasn’t changed is that there is a generation of people my age who don’t perceive that as being a loyal soldier in the company. They don’t see you in the office as much, so there’s a perception that they can’t count on you. I think it’s men and women of my generation who don’t understand that a flexible workplace brings out the best in the people who are the best.
It works both ways, though. If you are the one at home jumping online at 10 p.m. and the next day is the meeting and you have to be there, guess what? You have to be there. If Thursdays are usually your off day but Thursday this week isn’t a day that works, then you choose.
But is there still an “old boys network”?
Oh there’s still a very subtle, cultural world of golfing, and sports event and networking that women need to lean how to break through. You can be the smartest person in the office, but if you don’t know how to cultivate relationships and establish the business opportunities, you aren’t going to be the one tapped to move up.
Women still feel that getting the highest grade on the spelling test alone should prove it, but that’s not how the world works. And that’s OK. But women still are a little more challenged in how to bring through that culture of the golf course.
Overall, are you satisfied with the progress that has been made as regards women in the workplace? Did you think it would have changed more than it has?
It’s a good question. I have seen some instances recently of women in the upper levels who have hit the glass ceiling trying to get that bigger job and I’ve been stunned at the blatant discrimination that still exists at the boardroom level when they’re looking at top jobs. The things that get said out loud are still shocking to me in this day and age.
That being said, I think overall the progress I have seen has been huge. I would say it has been an unbelievable victory. My son is 23 years old and in his first job in the workplace. He works for a woman boss. He experiences life in a woman-dominated workplace and I have to laugh as I watch him navigate through what it’s like to have women bosses and women colleagues. Thank god he was raised by a feminist mother: I prepared him well!
But I think that’s such a great change. It’s a whole different world out there. There has been an amazing amount of change, though not by accident and not without a fight. We have fought very hard to change the laws on family medical leave and I don’t think it’s just that women have been successful because the world embraced our message. The fact that everyone has aging parents colliding with raising kids has brought these issues forward. That, for better or worse, has shed greater light on these leave issues. I don’t think everyone suddenly embraced the cause of women, but the generational changes of aging parents and kids hit men as well as women, so the people in the corner offices realized that changes needed to be made. The political is always personal.
There are a heck of a lot of women who fought tough legislative fights for changes on equal pay, family medical leave and others. These were not easily achieved goals. It took both women advocates and a lot of legislators who were men but who worked in partnership with women to get things done. Women may start the discussion and fight the good fight, but it’s never women alone. There are always men along the way in partnership with us who get the job done.
Are you optimistic about the future or concerned about backsliding?
Optimistic. Because so many professions now are so heavily skewed to women. Look at the medical or legal or accounting professions and see that 50% of the graduates are women—and oh, by they way, they’re probably the best and the brightest. It will change the world because the world needs the best and the brightest.